How to address the lack of engineering and tech talent in the UAE
Toni Allen is director of international, strategic marketing and engagement at the Institution of Engineering and Technology
The world is changing rapidly, and new technologies are driving our economies, the way we live and even the way we socialise and communicate. The pace of change is incredible. Across the globe engineers are innovating new systems and solutions to the greatest challenges of our time.
The United Arab Emirates is not immune to the changes nor the scale and speed at which they are happening. As the UAE looks to reshape its economy to be less reliant on oil and gas in the next decade and looks further ahead at its Centennial Plan 2071, its reliance on homegrown engineers will increase. And these engineers will need up-to-date technical skills, as well as leadership and project skills.
Earlier this year, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) published a report on engineering and technology skills in the UAE with a recommendation that the sector needs to work closer with educators if the country is going to inspire and enable the next generation of Emiratis to become world-class innovators of the future.
The IET is a 151-year-old global organisation with more than 155,000 members in 148 countries. Our report laid bare the skills gap currently facing the emirates’ engineering industry, as well as the skills prospects for the next decade. The findings reflected the UAE’s positive position, with almost half (48 per cent) of engineering and technology firms seeing a growth in their business and one in five reporting a large increase in staff numbers.
Unfortunately, in 2021 most engineering firms struggled to fill vacancies with more than nine in ten (93 per cent) engineering employers finding it difficult to recruit new staff. Our report also highlighted the quality of new recruits who joined the sector in the past year has challenged many businesses with 58 per cent of large companies (those with over 500 employees) saying they are struggling to find applicants with the right technical skills. Engineering employers also say there are simply not enough applicants for the jobs on offer, with a quarter saying there are not enough people interested in new positions.
The findings also show that the proportion of staff who are highly skilled varies according to the size of the company’s workforce. Startups with between one and 49 employees are less likely to have a ‘mostly high skilled’ staff profile, with just 44 per cent reporting their workforce is mostly highly skilled, compared to 76 per cent in large companies. Of those firms that took part in the survey, 42 per cent of small firms stated they have a mostly ‘intermediate skills’ profile among their workforce.
Challenges facing engineering employers include pressure on wages (34 per cent), increased remote working (23 per cent) and staff retention and turnover (23 per cent).
The companies which took part in our survey said that upskilling their staff in problem solving and leadership were among their most pressing training needs to meet their priorities.
The good news is that most employers are confident they can address the skills gap as their businesses diversify into new industries. Almost 90 per cent of engineering employers are confident they will be able to access the training needed to meet their goals in the next five years, with two thirds (66 per cent) looking to implement training to address their skills gap turning to professional training bodies to meet their needs.
For the UAE to continue to build home-grown engineering talent to meet its future requirements, industry and the government will need to work with schools to ensure children from a young age experience hands-on practical learning of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects to encourage creativity, imagination and problem solving.
We need to open young people’s eyes and minds to the world of engineering at a much younger age. Not only do we need them to understand what engineering is, we want them to see that if they practically apply the STEM skills they learn in the classroom, they can improve the world for everyone.
Unlike many other countries, the view of STEM graduates is a positive one across the UAE, with over half (54 per cent) of those who employ entry-level employees considering university education to be very effective in preparing them for the workplace. As the UAE engineering sector diversifies in the coming years, it will be critical for employers and educators to work together to shape the skills pipeline for their industry.
We are encouraging employers to look into hosting work experience opportunities and mentor schemes, as well as encouraging the engineers and technicians they employ to act as STEM Ambassadors, so the next generation is inspired and prepared for the skills they need.
Another positive result from the survey was that few respondents identified diversity as a current issue - with only 17 per cent saying they currently see a lack of gender diversity among the workforce and 13 per cent recognising a lack of ethnicity in their workplace. The UAE has a truly diverse population, and it is essential for the engineering sector to continue to embrace diversity, which is critical in helping to increase creativity, productivity and profitability.
In this area, the UAE is well ahead of many other countries when it comes to recruiting female engineers. This is due to the efforts that have been made in the past decade to attract female graduates into the sector. We hope this trend will continue in the next ten years and we’re urging the UAE government to share its learning across the world.
Our report consists of a number of recommendations – for the workplace and for the education system. These include the right skills, encouraging diversity and professional standards in the workplace while supporting graduates, increasing opportunities for experiential learning and quality assessing education programmes.
By working together, we can help the sector improve the skills of its workforce and help deliver the Centennial Plan 2071.